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The Business of Lies and the Lies of Business

Posted on 21 March 2019

“If you are engaged in the business of lies then your biggest vulnerability is your reputation” – Rupert Younger, Director, Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation. In February, Mishcon de Reya held a panel event with UCL. The event marked the culmination of our year-long collaboration with the Institute of Advanced Studies, that focused on Lies and Lying. The panel was hosted by UCL Chair in Law and Arts and Mishcon de Reya Deputy Chairman Anthony Julius. Anthony was joined by Alice Sherwood, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at The Policy Institute at King’s College London and Rupert Younger, Director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation.

The evening took the form of two presentations by each of the speakers that were then followed by questions from the audience. Although both talks were very individual and raised different questions, they covered the topic of lies in business.

“Luxury sales have tripled – counterfeiting has increased 200-fold” said Alice Sherwood, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at The Policy Institute at King’s College London. She began by looking at counterfeiting in the fashion world, and how you could trace that phenomenon back to the natural world. She examined butterflies and other insects that ‘copied’ or ‘knocked off’ a species’ markings in order to benefit from their implications. For instance, using the markings of a poisonous animal makes animals that are not poisonous live longer by association.

After a Q&A session with Alice, Rupert presented on how lying in business could affect an individual or companies’ reputation. As the Director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, he had a lot of expertise on how lying can affect the way people perceive businesses.

His conclusion: it doesn’t make as much difference as some might think, although he commented that consumers are more vocal about making moral choices now than ever before. Rupert cited several boycotts that had lasted for only a few weeks before fizzling out, showing that most people are only willing to boycott something for a short amount of time. Giving up Starbucks as a result of the 2012 tax scandal, for instance, seemed to be too much work for nearly all of its consumers.

The discussion here raised some interesting points. With the explosion of the internet and how that has challenged the ways we engage with brands, CEOs are expected to appear more ‘honest’ and public than ever before. But has this genuinely changed the way we do business, or will it ever?

Rupert indicated that, where the lies in question were seen to be well intentioned, many were more willing to look the other way. So does intent matter? It appears only to have an effect if the ‘liar’ is caught out. For those corporate leaders who find themselves in the unenviable position of making a mistake that requires a public apology, forgiveness seems more forthcoming where lies have been told for the ‘right’ reasons, whatever they are.

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